Tag Archives: new words

What Makes a Word a Word?

Oxford University Press, the supposed authority on the English language has recently been updating the dictionary. Every living language evolves, with slang as well as words falling in or out of favor, and meanings changing. I would think though that instead of regional (or these days, media generated) changes that are as popular as long as a show or fad lasts, the words would have staying power.

But Oxford claims they very much research these words. Their criteria are listed on their site. The word has to be used by more than one person and be in use for a certain period of time. They say that words or definitions are added when “people are using them unselfconsciously, and expecting them to be understood.” The word must appear in print at least five times, which when you think of a review of a show or movie, can give that word staying power rather quickly. In our world-wide web, that doesn’t seem to be a very high criterion at all. Only five times to gain the immortality of the dictionary?

Now when you consider the English language it’s been evolving for a very long time. Spelling was definitely not codified even in Shakespeare’s time, partly because it was still only the elite classes who could read and write. But people wrote it how they liked. The first English dictionary is credited to Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall published in 1604. He listed the words, with definitions. Before then there were lists of words, sometimes to try to control their spelling but not with definitions attached. Yet, the change in words was slow, because few people traveled and then by horse and carriage or by foot.

Along came faster transportation by train and then car and planes. These modes helped to also transport the language and various usages to a larger geography and population.  Then came the interweb (one of the newly added words) and suddenly words from all over the world were more accessible, through blogs, books, websites, reviews–information and entertainment sites of all types and styles.

Oxford says it used to be that a word had to be used over a period of two or three years, but now in the digital age this time period has shortened because a word can attain enormous currency rather quickly. Well, yes it can. I’m surprised that they looked at words that were around for only two or three years. That doesn’t seem to be enough time for a word to have staying power, and now less time is needed? I never heard of chillax (to calm down and relax, which when you think of it is about the same thing) or bromance (a close but nonsexual relationship between two men–I thought that was called friendship) until last week when the news announced Oxford’s newest additions to the language.

Now, sure these words are used by some. I don’t watch TV sitcoms or comedy shows so maybe I’m the equivalent of living in a small town far from London in the Middle Ages, and I don’t hear the new lexicon. But I just think that some words should be a bit more permanent. Okay, I know. The language changes. No words are necessarily permanent but to add the latest fad or cool word that might only be used for the season of a show and then fall out of everyone’s vocabulary, well it just seems too temporary. Will bromance and favicon even be around in a year. Playing Scrabble is going to be a lot easier and harder. You’ll need a new dictionary every year to play the game if you’re play one of those new hot words that everyone’s using but no one’s heard of.  But hey, you can make up words more and they may actually be right.

I have heard of and used turducken, tiki torch and steampunk, all new words in the dictionary. But then tiki torch has been around a long time and steampunk at least for ten years. (Hey WordPress, why are these words being highlighted as misspellings?) Maybe Oxford can start different lines of dictionaries. The could have the New Oxford Dictionary of Temporary But Utterly Cool Words, and the Oxford Dictionary of Words We Will Understand in Ten Years. But then, it’s not an easy job picking and choosing and the English language is rife with changes and additions. I think a job like this could be fun, but I wonder if there would be huge arguments such as  whether staycation is a real word or just a passing phase.

Evolution of the language is speeding up, which means in ten years you may not be able to understand what your neighbor’s saying, even if you do now. So perhaps I’ll just go the WordPress “favicon,” check my “hashtag” at the door and “tweetup” with an “ampelographer” for a drink later if we can avoid the “attack dog.”

Oxford Press Site

A Table Alphabeticall

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